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Africa Files: Somalia

Tuesday, September 01, 2020 11:24 AM | Jennifer Wisniewski (Administrator)

At a glance

Population:  11,757,124 (estimated in July, 2020)

Capital:  Mogadishu

Ethnic Groups: 85% Somali, 15% Bantu and other

Official languages:  Somali and Arabic (Italian and English are also spoken.)

Official Religion: Sunni Muslim

Fertility rate: 5.51 children per woman (one of world’s highest)

Life expectancy:  54

Literacy rate: 37.8%

Natural resources:  uranium, copper, iron ore, tin, salt, natural gas

Currency:  Somali shilling

GDP per capita: $314.54 (2018)

Form of government:  Federal parliamentary republic

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Somali Geography

Somalia is bordered by three countries to the west:  Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. The country’s northern border touches the Gulf of Aden, and the eastern border lies on the Indian Ocean. It is the edge of what is known as the Horn of Africa.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Somalia’s terrain is 25% desert, mostly flat, with hills in the northern section of the country. The climate is arid with hot and humid periods between the monsoons. Its natural disruptions can be ferocious with recurring droughts, frequent dust storms in the summer and floods during the rainy season.

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Somali History

Ethnic Cushites were the original settlers on this sometimes harsh terrain. In contact with Arab traders, they were one of the earliest peoples to convert to Islam. Though sharing a large border with Christian Ethiopia, the two nations lived peacefully for many centuries. This changed in the thirteenth century when Ethiopia invaded Somalia and dominated the country for a century. When the Somalis did retaliate, the Portugese came to the rescue of the Ethiopians, defeated the Somalis and then established a colony in Somali based on textile manufacturing. This was the beginning of the European colonization of Somalia, a land that would switch hands among European powers several times.

In the seventeenth century the Ottomans kicked out the Portugese and claimed sovereignty over the entire Horn of Africa. The Ottoman Empire would retain control of the area for two centuries. As the Empire declined in the nineteenth century, Britain, France and Italy all turned their eyes to Somalia with its strategic ports along the coast. Britain took control of the North, Italy control of the South and France control of the interior.

Late in the nineteenth century, the Somalis began resisting colonialism. After fighting Britain for two decades, the Somalis were devastated by a British aerial bombing campaign. By the time hostilities had ceased, over one-third of the northern Somali population had been decimated.

The destruction in the North would contribute to the rift that developed between the northern and southern sections of the country.  More violence later in the twentieth century would result. While the Brits were fighting in the North, the Italians were investing in infrastructure in the South and the region surged ahead economically.

During World War II and the period following, the entire country switched hands between the British and the Italians several times before Somalia achieved independence in 1959. Only ten years later, the president was assassinated and Mohammad Siad Barre seized power, aligning with the Soviet Union and beginning a brutal Marxist dictatorship. By 1988 a Civil War broke out with Siad overthrown in 1991 and more turmoil ensuing. The conflict destroyed crops, bringing famine in 1992. Starting in 1994, Mogadishu became divided between two warring factions, each with its own “national government.”  This division ushered in a long period of instability.

Somali Economy and Culture

Somalia’s informal economy is based on money transfer companies; telecommunications; and livestock/ agricultural products including bananas, sorghum, corn, coconuts, rice, sugarcane, mangoes, sesame seeds, beans, cattle sheep, goats and fish.

Somali cuisine is influenced by Arabic, Turkish, Indian and Italian culture and varies by region. In the North, pancake-like bread called canjeero is eaten for breakfast along with soup or stew. Meanwhile, in the Mogadishu area, a porridge with sugar and butter is often eaten for breakfast. Lunch might consist of spiced rice or pasta with vegetables or meat. In the South, hummus, falafel, fava beans and kimis are common.

Clothing styles differ depending on locality with most urban dwellers wearing western-style clothing and rural dwellers wearing traditional garb. For women, this includes guntiinos, long garments draped around the waist and tied over a shoulder. A man might wear a macawis, a sarong-like garment, and a colorful turban.

Marriages are still often arranged especially in rural areas, and polygamy is common. A man can keep up to four wives at once.

Somali Challenges

Somalia suffers from a poor economy and educational system. With only 40% of children attending primary school, it has one of the world’s lowest enrollment rates. Because young people lack education and job opportunities, they are left vulnerable to recruitment from pirates and extremist groups. Girls are also vulnerable to child marriages.

In addition, Somalia rates as the third highest source country for refugees in the world. Many factors contribute: drought, floods, food shortages, a lack of security and a poor economy.

In 2020, two other concurrent miseries arrived - COVID-19 and a locust invasion.

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